Define Cavalier Poetry

Among the poets who had written verses lamenting the death of Donne had been Thomas Carew (1598-1639), one of the earliest of the ‘Cavalier’ poets. His verses had grace and wit, and his love lyrics and madrigals have found a place in the anthologies. Carew was the most careful of the ‘Cavalier’ lyricists, some of whom appear to be brilliant amateurs in verse. Sir John Suckling (1609-42), though he wrote often and sometimes seriously, seems to have been improvising in some of his light and cynical love lyrics. Richard Lovelace (1618-58) had probably a less sustained poetic gift than either Carew or Suckling, but had the good fortune to make a few happily turned songs, including Stone walls do not a prison make, by which his name will be remembered.

In fact, the reign of Charles I was made illustrious by an outburst of gallant and devoted song. Though the Caroline lyric continued in form, the national habit of song which had long been practiced and which had passed from privacy to publicity in Tottel’s Miscellany, the note of Cavalier poetry is new. The fantastic idealism of Petrarch vanishes, and there is a return to the franker emotions of Anacreon, Catullus and Horace. The sonnet, in particular, disappears. Elizabethan conventionalism had killed it, and it had to be born again in a new age with a new inspiration. Donne fashioned a kind of song for himself. Ben Jonson sought inspiration in classical models going to the heart of classical poetry, and not bothering, as some of his misguided predecessors had done, about the quantitative skeleton and the sin of rhyming. The influence of Jonson on the younger generation of poets was powerful.

The poet who first, before the Civil War, showed what the spirit of the Cavaliers was to be, and first was affected by the combined influence of Jonson and Donne was Thomas Carew, a gentleman of the court of Charles I who was a reputed wit. He was a courtly and polished love-poet whom his rivals suspected of working long at his elegant verses. Probably his best poem is the finely and frankly sensuous The Rapture which is an invitation to Celia to flout “the Giant Honour” and enjoy forbidden pleasures without scruple. The paradise he paints to her is one of the most licentious even of those inspired by the Italian Renaissance. His attack on honour recalls Sidney’s Astrophel and especially Donne’s Elegies. Carew is connected with Donne by the fine elegy with which he honoured his memory. The poem has more feeling than is customary with Carew and is, moreover, one of the best pieces of criticism written in this period. Perhaps no one has pointed out more accurately than Carew what was new in Donne, his contempt for outworn ornament and his need of personal and virile expression. Carew’s spiritual home, however, is the city and the court, not the country and the parsonage.

Sir John Suckling typifies the Cavaliers, their loyalty, dash, petulancy, frivolity, easy morals and wit, rich, spendthrift, valiant, a gamester and a gallant, an amateur of the drama who wrote four not unsuccessful plays, and a faithful admirer of Shakespeare, Suckling mocked at the pains which Carew took to polish his verses. He recalls Donne when he rallies women on her capriciousness or himself on his inconstancy. He discharges his mockery in the form of little, swiftly moving, neatly turned songs, irony sometimes hiding the madrigal, as in Out upon It. ’Natural, easy Suckling’, as Congreve’s Millamant calls him, whose life was short and who versified only as a pastime, had a considerable production. Beneath his apparent frivolity there was, as his poems prove, romantic generosity. One of his best sustained efforts can be found in the twenty-two stanzas of his mock epithalamium A Ballad upon a Wedding in which a farmer describes, in picturesque language, a wedding at which he has been present. Here there are many lively and homely descriptive touches as well as wit and spirit.

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Richard Lovelace strikes one as neither so correct as Carew nor as natural as Suckling. This most handsome Cavalier whose figure fascinated the ladies, this faithful follower of the king who was twice imprisoned and finally ruined for the cause, died in poverty in 1658. A year later appeared in Lucasta: Posthume Poems of Richard Lovelace, Esq. The place of Lovelace in English poetry is curious because critics feel that he would have been more famous had he written less. His two or three perfect lyrics seem to be buried in a mass of frigid, extravagant and artificial versification which is perhaps best forgotten. The lack of art in his work is as apparent as its mannerisms.

John Cleveland (1613-58), a Royalist like the other poets, emerges as very different from them. Of humble origin, unlike the others, he was, above all, a satirist, and he enjoyed in his own century a popularity which his vigour and his wit deserved. But his countless slight topical allusions make him difficult to read today. He struck readers as one of Donne’s most determined imitators, and conceits abound in his poems.

Midway between the Cavaliers and the Anglicans, is Robert Herrick (1591-1674), perhaps the most gifted and most exquisite of these poets. The anacreonticism of the poetry of his youth makes him one of the Cavaliers, and since at the age of thirty-eight, he accepted a Devonshire living and did his best to convert his muse, he is also to be numbered among the Anglicans. His only collection of poems Hesperides, published in 1648, contains his works ‘both human and divine’. The former consist of 1,129 short sets of verses, the latter of only 271, and the proportion may well be taken to be that in which his inspiration was secular and sacred. Herrick was much more than a Cavalier lyricist, for he could write the old, simple songs which Carew and Suckling would have found rustic, but which the contemporaries of Spenser and Shakespeare would have loved. Every lyric he wrote reveals his inspired command of metre and rhyme. He followed the example of Donne in dedicating his powers to religion, when he entered the church; but he could not change the temper of his mind. Strangely enough, Herrick’s poems achieved no contemporary fame and he had to wait till the end of the eighteenth century before he took his rightful place as one of the greatest of English lyric poets.



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